UZBEKISTAN: Protesters picket US Embassy to call for election boycott
Election boycott picket outside the US Embassy in Tashkent - an unusual display of people power in this autocratic nation
Tashkent, 1 December 2004 (IRIN) - Rights and opposition groups gathered outside the US Embassy in the capital, Tashkent, on Wednesday, calling on the US government to support freedom of speech and democracy in this Central Asian state. The protesters say the Uzbek government has blocked the registration of genuine opposition candidates in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
About 30 members of rights and opposition groups – a significant number in this tightly controlled state which is a key US ally in the war against international terrorism - stood outside the embassy building in the chill morning holding dozens of posters against government policy and calling for a boycott of the elections, due to be held on 26 December.
“We are gathered outside the US Embassy to deliver our message to the outside world,” Dilorom Isakhova, one of the participants and spokeswoman of the outlawed Erk (Freedom) Party, told IRIN. “Though we don’t hold much hope of seeing US pressure on the Uzbek government, it is our only chance to reach the international community,” she added.
Earlier this week the Uzbek Central Election Committee (CEC) announced the list of registered candidates for the law house – the legislative chamber of Uzbek parliament. According to rights and opposition groups there are no independent candidates in the list who would offer alternative views to the government of Islam Karimov and represent the opposition.
Critics say five officially registered pro-government political parties have no serious political commitments and don't even consider themselves opposition parties. Opposition groups, Erk, Birlik (Unity), and “Ozod Dehkonlar” (Free Farmers) have been refused permission to register as political parties.
Akhtam Shaimardonov, a member of Free Farmers Party, told IRIN he came to protest against the upcoming parliamentary elections, which he expects to be totally undemocratic. “So, we are addressing the US president with an open letter to ask him to raise his voice in defence of democracy in Uzbekistan,” he said.
“Under a pretence of fighting against extremism and international terrorism, Karimov’s regime is trying to silence those who don’t agree with his policy,” the open letter to the US president said.
Last month a senior official from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) in Central Asia said they would send a limited observer mission to Uzbekistan. Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president and Central Asia envoy for the OSCE, said the Uzbek elections would be “little more than an internal government exercise” if opposition members were not allowed to run.
Uzbek authorities had earlier rejected alleged violations of electoral laws and denied the creation of obstacles for opposition candidates, describing such claims as groundless. The CEC official also termed the OSCE’s Needs Assessment Mission Report conducted in September biased and based on groundless claims, which are inaccurate and unchecked.
Another participant at the demonstration, human rights activist A’zam Turgunov, said that despite widespread pre-election propaganda from the authorities it was already known that the voting would not be free and fair. “Local officials and the chiefs of neighborhood committees are instructed to make people come to the election centres by any means,” he told IRIN.
On 26 December, 14.5 million voters, out of a total population of 26 million, will be able to vote for 120 parliamentary deputies and for members of regional and district councils. A 100-seat upper chamber - the Senate - will be created next January. According to a new amendment to the election law, a 33 percent turnout would be enough to legitimise the election results.
Some protesters at the embassy were also calling for a halt to human rights violations and to stop state terror against practicing Muslims. According to Washington-based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), Uzbekistan has in recent years jailed about 6,000 Muslims.
Lack of democratic reform in the country has led Washington to cut down financial aid to Uzbekistan, even though Tashkent is an ally in the US anti-terror campaign, and is home to a major US airbase near the Afghan border.